After winning four straight games on the East Coast, the Utah State Aggies proved they can also win in the Mountain Time Zone as they beat UT Arlington 80-61 Saturday night at the Spectrum.
“Obviously a great win for us,” first-year head coach Ryan Odom said after his first victory on Utah State’s home court.
“I thought UT Arlington provided a big challenge for us, especially coming off of a long road trip. We were gone for a while and played some really good teams on the road. Obviously came back with some confidence.”
Utah State (5-1) hadn’t played at the Spectrum since opening the season on Nov. 9 with a loss to UC Davis, but after that 72-69 setback on their home floor, the Aggies beat Richmond on a neutral court in Annapolis, Maryland, then won the Myrtle Beach Invitational with victories over Penn, New Mexico State and Oklahoma.
The Aggies led the game Saturday against the Mavericks (1-5) from start to finish, building a 13-point lead in the first half before settling for a 40-32 advantage at halftime.
Utah State was clinging to a 47-40 lead with 15:28 left before it took control of the game with a 21-4 run over the next eight-plus minutes.
“We went into halftime with some results that we weren’t necessarily pleased with in ourselves. Just some consistency things and some effort things that we were able to fix in the second half, especially on the defensive end,” USU sophomore guard Steven Ashworth said.
“I think midway through that second half, we were able to go on a pretty solid run and I think that changed the pace, the momentum, the energy of the game for us. A lot of guys stepped up, made good plays and we shared the ball well, and I think that it was definitely the result that we wanted to end the evening.”
The Aggies got 24 points and 10 rebounds from Justin Bean — the senior forward’s fifth double-double in six games — and 16 points, including four 3-pointers, five rebounds and four assists from senior guard Brock Miller.
Ashworth came off the bench to contribute a season-high 15 points on a career-best five 3-pointers, while also compiling six assists and five rebounds in just 23 minutes.
“At halftime, I had a good talk with Coach Bryce (Crawford), and he reminded me the kind of player that I am and how I should be confident, and I think it’s crazy what confidence can do for guys,” said Ashworth, who had just three points in the first half.
“I think that was probably just the biggest difference in the second half was that my confidence was up, and I was letting it fly.”
As a team, the Aggies dished out a season-high 26 assists on 30 field goals, while committing 12 turnovers.
Utah State shot 51.7% from the field, including a 12-of-29 effort from 3-point range, and knocked down 8 of 10 attempts from the free-throw line.
And led by Ashworth, the USU bench contributed a season-best 26 points.
“Twenty-six assists; that’s huge,” Odom said. “We talk about trusting the pass and trusting teammates, and I think our guys certainly do that; they’re a fun group to watch and coach.
“I would have rather had a few less turnovers in that game. There was a few that we could have back through better decisions, but that’s going to happen. Hard to complain about 26 and 12 from that regard.”
UT Arlington shot 48.1% from the floor in the first half, but that percentage plummeted in the second half to just 31%.
Senior guard David Azore scored 17 points to lead the Mavericks, who lost at San Diego State by just six points a week ago, while senior guard Javon Levi finished with 14 points.
Junior guard Carson Bischoff, a Weber High graduate who spent his redshirt year at Utah State in 2019-20, led Texas-Arlington with three 3-pointers on his way to nine points in his first game action of the season following back surgery.
“Tough game tonight against a really good team,” UTA head coach Greg Young said. “Congratulations to Utah State, they’ve got a really good team. We knew they were, especially after they’ve played the last four games and who they’ve beaten and them winning the Myrtle Beach Classic, we knew this would be a tough test.
“I was proud of our team for the most part. Seven-point game with 14 minutes to go and we just really struggled to score. When you’re not scoring and you’re playing against a team that can really score the ball and you can’t answer them, it makes for a hard night.”
Like they did against UC Davis more than two weeks ago, the Aggies got off to a strong start, going up 22-9 in the first seven minutes when Ashworth knocked down his first 3-pointer.
But unlike that season-opening loss, Utah State never let the Mavericks really get rolling, maintaining at least a six-point advantage throughout the first half.
Odom was particularly pleased with how his team responded when it saw its first zone defense of the night, scoring almost immediately when senior forward Brandon Horvath found Bean underneath the basket for an easy score that left the Aggies up 29-20 with seven minutes left in the first half.
“I thought that was a key possession,” Odom said. “We talk a lot about that with our team. We’re going to face zones as the year progresses, and the very first time that you handle or face a zone within the game can determine whether they really go back to it and how you handle it, and our guys handled it extremely well.“
Although the Aggies took a 40-32 lead into halftime, Odom said he and his coaching staff still expected more from the home team and urged the Aggies to take things up defensively in the second half.
They certainly did that, while also heating up on offense, even with Horvath stuck on the bench for 10 minutes with after picking up his third foul.
“We did not guard in the first half like we wanted to,” Odom noted. “We challenged the guys at half to keep them out of the paint more.
“They were getting into the paint too easily on us, and I thought our guys in the second half did a nice job of really shoring up the defense.”
There was just under 12 minutes left in the game when Ashworth, who had missed several wide-open attempts, elected to take a deep, but fairly well-contested, 3-pointer.
Once that shot went in for a 57-44 lead, the former Lone Peak High star seemed like a different player the remainder of the game as the Aggies extended their second-half lead to as many as 24 points.
Utah State will return to action Monday night at the Spectrum against Carroll College.
While the Fighting Saints out of Helena, Montana, are an NAIA school, they’re also 10-0 this season.